Issue 66 (2019)

Igor’ Zaitsev: Tobol (2019)

reviewed by Eve Ivanilova © 2019

Despite the fact that Tobol is based on Aleksei Ivanov’s novel of the same title, the idea of the film was born first. In 2014, Oleg Uryshev, the producer of the future film, proposed that the famous Russian author and screenwriter Ivanov wrote a screenplay for an 8-episode TV-show set in 18th-century Siberia. Soon after Ivanov had completed the text, Uryshev presented it to the most popular federal channel in Russia, Channel One (Pervyi kanal). In their response, the channel’s administration said that Ivanov’s text was the perfect outline for a novel, and that they were looking forward to a screenplay. This lukewarm response became the source of serious disagreements between Ivanov and Uryshev; as a result, they made two different projects entitled Tobol. Ivanov refused to continue working on the script project and wrote a two-volume novel. It was published on the eve of the film premiere of Tobol, which was based on a hugely changed version of Ivanov’s original screenplay. In numerous interviews, the writer insisted that his novel does not relate to the film, whilst Uryshev discursively highlighted the connection between the two. First of all, he admired the creative power of Ivanov’s novel, thus enlisting the symbolic capital of the famous writer to promote the film (Uryshev 2019). At the same time, Uryshev stressed the fact that the novel Tobol was published with the poster of the film on its cover (Uryshev 2019). It is reasonable to suggest that Uryshev’s attention to this detail reflects not only his essential professional responsibilities as a producer, but also his view of the Tobol project that framed the film itself. While for Ivanov, Tobol was an investigation into the cultural, ethnic, and social controversies of 18th-century Siberia, Uryshev intended to create a spectacular action movie about men of honor (mostly Russians). The desire to make this impressively expensive project based on a conservative account of “great” national history can be seen in Uryshev’s interviews and television adverts for the film (Uryshev 2018, 2019). There has been a lot of talk about the hundreds of Siberian extras, the range of sponsors (from Fond Kino to Sibur and Gazprom), the longest Chroma key screen that has ever been built in Russia, the historically authentic buttons on the costumes for a million rubles, expensive ships, and minute architectural details. Tobol was persistently discussed not just as a film, but as a collective project that was to demonstrate historical continuity from Peter the Great to the present day: “The youth have to understand that people’s relationships have not changed. Honor, conscience, truth, victory, and joy of victory—these feelings have stayed the same” (Uryshev 2018). The statement was proven by materializing the times with thorough historical reconstructions. Besides the above-mentioned costumes and decorations, the film group and Tyumen’s regional authorities opened a posad (a thorough reconstruction of an 18th-century Siberian town) for tourists after the film (and its TV-version) were shown.

tobolThis review is not yet another attempt to impress the reader with extraneous facts. However, it is important for any analysis of Tobol to consider the marketing strategy for the film. First, it influences the aesthetic of the film. Second, it reflects a major trend in contemporary Russian large-budget cinema.

The film merges two love stories from the first volume of Ivanov’s novel. They are shown in the context of another plot trajectory. In the very beginning, it appears rapidly in both narrative and visual aspects. The camera flies through dozens of ships and eastern trade caravans that come to Tobolsk and overcrowd the town. Walking through bustling folk, the Siberian governor Gagarin discusses their common business goals with a high-status Chinese trader. Suddenly the latter supplies Gagarin with some very unwanted news: the Chinese emperor is going to forbid Russian trade in China, because Russia refuses to support China in a war against the Dzungar people. The emperor wants Gagarin to deliver a paizi (a gold tablet which Chinese officials send to a potential ally to confirm an alliance) to Peter the Great. A few moments after Gagarin accepts the paizi and the Chinese trader inquires as to whether Russia will join the war or not, Peter the Great jumps onto the screen. The Russian Emperor emotionally makes a lewd gesture, making the sign of fig at the camera to immediately express his answer. He repeats it in the royal palace, the third location within five minutes of the film: he does not want to begin a new war in the East while Russia fights with Sweden in the West. However, he is interested in Gagarin’s speech about a goldfield on the border with the Dzungar people and decides to send a peaceful expedition there. This is how the main character, young lieutenant Ivan Demarin, enters the story. In contrast to Peter, who broke into the shot top-down, Demarin jumps out from the lower part of the frame, where he had been showing off before friends and court ladies. His emergence in the shot anticipates the plot track of his character. Demarin will consciously rise in his view of war and peace. He will be presented not as Aleksei Ivanov’s prototype, but rather as a simplified version of Andrei Bolkonskii; like Lev Tolstoy’s character from War and Peace, Demarin will be disappointed by the war and fall in love with an innocent young woman.

tobolA rapid zoom carries the viewer back to Tobolsk, where governor Gagarin arrives with Demarin as one of the participants in Peter’s gold-seeking campaign. The lieutenant stays in the house of Semen Remezov, a self-taught architect who designed Tobolsk’s White Kremlin in the 18th Century. New characters appear one by one, as though in a rollcall, and each new line begins with just a couple phrases or slight gazes. While Demarin and other young lieutenants enter the city, Remezov’s youngest son is charmed by their gorgeous uniforms. At the same time, Remezov’s assistant Renat, a smart and decent captive Swedish soldier, sees the beautiful blonde Brigitta and her squabbling alcoholic husband. He immediately experiences Brigitta’s mutual interest, as well as a self-confident rejection from Demarin, who sees Renat as an enemy of the Russian Emperor. Before the campaign goes to the gold-field, Demarin naïvely falls in love with Remezov’s daughter Masha, and encourages Remezov’s teenage son to get recruited, consequently provoking Remezov to hate the young self-confident lieutenant with all his heart. While in Ivanov’s novel the tension between Remezov and Demarin is the result of the complicated inner state of each character, the film shows the conflict in a more populist manner. The same could be said about Brigitta and Renat’s plot trajectory, which was shortened and reduced to a Disney-like love story. Without a detailed comparison of their line in film and novel, it is obvious to see the discrepancy in Brigitta and Renat’s images: what was a complicated female character in the novel only helps develop Renat’s line and the Demarin-Renat conflict. The female characters’ suppression may be explained by the need to place Ivanov’s long story in one film (or even 8 TV-episodes). However, it makes the story (and history) in the film questionable. The Dzungar people, who appear in the film later, are also a reduction of Ivanov’s images of native Siberians. First of all, they are only presented as natives; secondly, they are orientalized objects without their own motivations or purposes.

As soon all characters are placed in the plot like on a chessboard, the inciting incident happens. During a winter fair, a random drunk man kills Renat’s dog. The shocked Swede attacks him with John Wick`s anger in his eyes and suddenly provokes a chaotic street fight. Soon after the foolish battle, in which people fight with axes and frozen fish, governor Gagarin devises a way to put the imprisoned Renat to use. Now he must join the gold campaign with its secret mission to deliver the Chinese paizi to the leader of the Dzungar people, and the captive must lie that he has stolen the paizi from Gagarin. According to the governor’s plan, the trick will provoke the Dzungar people to attack the Russian expedition and lead to a Russian war with the Dzungar people that will finally allow Gagarin to continue doing business with China. For his service, Renat will be rewarded with the only two things he wants: Brigitta and release from captivity.

tobol All the following events and plot twists bear no relation to Ivanov’s story. After Renat has passed the paizi to the Dzungar people, they attack the Russian fortress and kill Remezov’s youngest son. The architect, his daughter Masha, and a convoy of food go to the fortress for help. During the trip from one part of Russia to another which takes a mere minute of screen time, Masha meets Brigitta. Their dialogue explicitly neutralizes the independence of the two female characters. With an artificial foreign accent Brigitta says she is also going to her lover. The Russian and German girls merge into one stereotypical female character: the brave woman traveling to Siberia for her beloved. By this moment, their men are already connected. It appears that the authors did not make a significant value distinction between the Russian and captive Swede. First, Renat and Demarin are able to help others selflessly: Renat is a typical kind warrior from the beginning of the film, and Demarin learns extremely fast what justice means. Second, both men are interested in being socially useful. The Russian lieutenant takes care of his colleagues, and Renat publishes a lot of precious maps of Siberia when he finally returns to Europe with Brigitta. However, there are significant differences in the characters’ motifs that prompt their heroic behavior.

Renat is motivated by personal attachments to his dog, home, and the woman he loves. By contrast, Demarin can sacrifice his individual desires (military career or Masha) in service of abstract justice. This is vividly shown in their relation to death. Renat and Brigitta are captured by the brutal Dzungar chief. He forces Brigitta to undress in front of the tied-up Renat, and she consoles him with the only thing she can: “Close your eyes. It is not death.” Demarin does not have the European vitality, which may allow one to close one’s eyes to immoral behavior. A little later, the same Dzungar chief tortures Demarin and asks him if he is afraid of death. Demarin gives him silence for an answer. In this way, the Russian character is depicted as an immortal hero, because he does not fear death, like the Europeans and Asians do. Demarin’s complexity is the reason why he is highly esteemed by Peter the Great, who worries about the future of the Russian Empire.

tobol Renat, whose first name is Johan (the Swedish version of Ivan), is a fragmented reflection of Ivan Demarin. He experiences all that defines Johan: he graduated from a school in Europe and was obsessed with his military career. But Johan is not capable of such an extent of loyalty and humanity that the Russian Ivan seems to possess naturally. The culmination of their conflict coincides with the climax of the plot and visual attraction. It is the scene of a cannon duel between Demarin, defending a Russian castle, and Renat, who is forced to fight for the Dzungar people.

The discrepancy between the Swedish and Russian characters’ motivations and the deficiency of critical perspective are possibly the most important reasons for the lack of historical authenticity, which was a key marketing attribute of the project Tobol. The combination of conservative ethics and extremely rapid cinematographic language (CGI) gives the viewer no complex historical picture, but Russia’s contemporary official ideology. It is still based on the Hegelian models of nationalist thinkers like Nikolai Danilevskii, according to which Russia is a synthesis of thesis (Europe) and antithesis (Asia). According to the producer Uryshev, the authors of the film tried to show three different worlds in the film: Russian, European and Asian. However, the European world just performs the function of a broken mirror to the Russians’ character development, while Asia is represented merely in the extravagant haircuts of the Dzungars and their cruelty. The only world that Tobol reflects is the official account of Russian national history.

tobolSoon after Vladimir Medinskii became Minister of Culture, several large-budget action movies have combined official memory politics with neoliberal interests of the state: Viking (2016), Stalingrad (2013), Going Vertical (Dvizhenie vverkh, 2017), and T-34 (2018) have all made an outstanding commercial profit from conservative ideology. The reasons for their success include the fact that these films covered the largest group of Russian viewers: people who watch federal channels and support state propaganda or are indifferent to it. All of the mentioned films were promoted as national achievements on television, like Gagarin’s space flight, the defeat of the Nazis, or the annexation of Crimea. Symptomatically, the absolute leader in terms of commercial profit is Going Vertical, whose producer Anton Zlatopolskii is general manager of the television channel Rossiya.

Tobol was advertised on television also as a new technological marvel of Russian cinema about the heroic national past. Tobol was discussed as a renaissance project, because its authors built the “Venice of the North” (the setting in Tobolsk) and introduced the little-known “Siberian Da Vinci” (the architect and cartographer Semen Remezov) to audiences. The imbrication of conservative politics and neoliberal economics in contemporary Russia is interestingly reflected in the date of Tobol’s premiere. The Ministry of Culture postponed the premiere from December to the eve of Day of the Defender of the Fatherland (23 February) in order to protect this Russian patriotic project from the need to compete with 6 US blockbusters that were shown in Russian cinemas at the end of 2018. However, Tobol did not gain a record at the box-office and was not included in any top-lists from Russian film business bulletins. This unsatisfactory result can be explained from within the film. In contrast to Viking, Stalingrad, Going Vertical, and T-34, this film is not devoted to particular glorious moments of national history. Tobol presents almost obscure persons (the Siberian governor Gagarin, the architect Remezov, and the captive Swede Renat) and talks about the conquest of Siberia, which is not part of the contemporary historical canon. Unsurprisingly, the film does not show any native Siberians, which played a crucial part in Ivanov’s novel. However, this fact did not help to satisfy audience expectations. Plans to create a “Gesamtkunstwerk” with complex decorations, historical foundation, costumes, CGI, tricks, and turning the film set into a museum were only partly realized from a commercial perspective: Tobol was shown in 1,000 cinemas across Russia and earned almost 141 million rubles against the 75 million predicted by Biulleten’ kinoprokatchika. In the aesthetic respect Tobol presented a less coherent result, because not all of the film’s levels were developed to the extent as they should be in a Gesamtkunstwerk. The most detached aspect was the screenplay which drastically simplified the characters’ motivations compared to those of Ivanov’s novel.

tobol Aleksei Ivanov’s Tobol is often compared to another, much more famous post-modern historical novel: George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The film (and TV-show) Tobol was also compared to Game of Thrones by its promoters. From the perspective of this review, the most interesting thing is how the main characters of the HBO and Russian shows relate to their literary prototypes and the poetic logic of the novels.

The arc of Ivan Demarin partly coincides with the arc of John Snow, the character from Game of Thrones with a similar name. Snow’s key motivation is also fidelity to his own word instead of personal benefit or survival. The events that happen with Ivan Demarin and John Snow (in the last seasons) are invented by scriptwriters—but not Ivanov or Martin. However, in the HBO show, John Snow’s line echoes the logic of the novel, in which all events take place at a complex intersection of private interests and beliefs. Ivanov’s novel depicts the Siberian Middle Ages in a similar way. Characters with different world views, aspirations, and gods encounter each other in random circumstances and become hostages of their ideas. Ivanov’s Demarin was part of this intricate horizontal world. But in the film (and the TV-show) Tobol, this character is positioned as an absolute ideal, neutralizing any contradictions (which are already very limited in the film). Therefore, producer Oleg Uryshev was right in insisting that Tobol is not Game of Thrones and not the world of Ivanov’s novel. Tobol the film gives a much more conservative and outdated historiosophical model.

Eve Ivanilova
Pittsburgh/Moscow

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Works Cited

Uryshev, Oleg. 2018. Interview for Tiumenskoe vremia TV-channel. 18 December.

Uryshev, Oleg. 2019. Interview for ETV TV-channel. 18 January.


Tobol, Russia, 2019
Color, 108 minutes
Director: Igor Zaitsev
Script: Aleksei Permiakov, Igor' Zaitsev, Piotr Zelenov
DoP: Iurii Korobeinikov
Production Design: Andrei Vasin, Il'ia Mandrichenko
Costume Design: Vladimir Nikiforov, Dmitrii Andreev
Music: Aleksandr Makagian
Editing: Mariia Sergeenkova, Piotr Zelenov, Dmitrii Stolbtsov
Cast: Il'ia Malanin, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Dmitrii Nazarov, Pavel Tabakov, Andrei Burkovskii, Agata Mutsenidze, Evgenii Diatlov, Ekaterina Guseva, Ivan Kolesnikov
Producer: Oleg Uryshev, Ivan Uryshev, Eduard Eloian, Denis Zhalinskii, Vitalii Shliapo, Aleksei Trotsiuk, Anastasiia Romanova, Elena Khvan, Larisa Korkishko
Production Company: Solivs, Pervyi kanal, Yellow, Black & White

Igor’ Zaitsev: Tobol (2019)

reviewed by Eve Ivanilova © 2019

Updated: 2019